Academic journal article Public Administration Review

The Federal Line-Item Veto: What Is It and What Will It Do?

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

The Federal Line-Item Veto: What Is It and What Will It Do?

Article excerpt

Presidents since Ulysses S. Grant have desired line-item veto authority, but President Clinton became the first to acquire it when the Line Item Veto Act (P.L. 104-130) took effect on January 1, 1997. This legislation established, for an eight-year period that ends on January 1, 2005, a statutory variant of the item veto. Although the law is not a direct substitute for a constitutionally provided item veto, it has the potential to significantly alter the federal budget process.

During the congressional debate opponents and proponents of the item veto agreed on one thing--that the legislation would have significant consequences. Opponents regarded it as one of the greatest shifts of power between the legislative and executive branches in the nation's history. In the words of Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.): "This so-called line-item veto act should be more appropriately labeled `The President Always Wins Bill.' From now on, the heavy hand of the President will be used to slap down Congressional opposition wherever it may exist" (1996). Supporters tended to view this new tool as a powerful weapon in the continuing battle to reduce the deficit, a perception reflected in Senator John McCain's (R-Ariz.) assessment: "The line-item veto is not a means to encourage Presidential abuse, but a means to end Congressional abuse. It will give the President appropriate power to help control spending and reduce the deficit" (1996).

In reality, the effects of the line-item veto are likely to be less dramatic than those predicted during the congressional debate. If it is not found unconstitutional, the Line Item Veto Act will probably have little effect on the deficit and a modest impact on the distribution of political power. The legislation could, however, affect relations between the president and Congress in profound ways. Whatever its actual effects, it will be important to isolate and analyze them in a timely manner so as to contribute to the important policy decision that Congress and the president will make some time before 2005 when they decide whether and in what form to extend the power.

To be useful to the debate, any analysis of the effects of the item veto during its trial period must ask the right questions and use appropriate methodologies when seeking answers. This article represents an effort to begin that process. First, it lays out the specifics of the Line Item Veto Act. Second, it identifies a research agenda by spelling out some of the issues on which scholars should focus when they attempt to evaluate the new law's effect. Finally, it discusses some of the ways that scholars might be able to determine what effect, if any, the item veto has had.

The Line-Item Veto Prior to the 104th Congress

Many presidents over the past 120 years have sought to increase their power in the budget process by obtaining the authority to reduce or eliminate specific items in appropriation bills while approving others, a power possessed by 43 of the 50 state governors (Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, 1995). Those presidents have argued that an item veto would empower them, as representatives of the general interest, to reduce low-priority or locally oriented (pork barrel) projects inserted in spending legislation by Congress often without subcommittee hearings, discussion, or debate.

A constitutional amendment would be required to provide the president with the sort of item veto power that the governors possess. Because the Constitution has proved so difficult to modify, proponents of the item veto began considering statutory means to accomplish the same end, particularly after Ronald Reagan (a former governor) asked for this power in his 1984 State of the Union address. Those statutory approaches would provide the president with greater power to pursue the cancellation of funding for portions of the appropriation bills he has already signed. Since the passage of the 1974 Impoundment Control Act, the president has had the power to propose cancellations of enacted budget authority. …

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